Early Leeds, late comebacks

SEPTEMBER. Summer makes a bid for an encore at Elland Road. The league tables have yet to harden, but Leeds United have started the season well.

This is significant for anyone who knows the club’s recent history. To borrow from Alan Partridge, Leeds went from having their own chat show to presenting the graveyard shift on Radio Norwich to developing a Toblerone addiction and trying to drive to Dundee in their bare feet. Maybe this is the Bouncing Back phase. Or maybe they really are bouncing back.

There have been times over the last three years when it seemed as though Leeds would never get out of League One – such as at around 4.05pm on Saturday, May 8. Needing a win to guarantee automatic promotion, Leeds had seen Max Gradel sent off and just gone 1-0 down at home to Bristol Rovers. But two quick goals turned the game and spared Leeds the play-offs for a third successive season.

The return to the Championship has seen chairman Ken Bates give a couple of national newspaper interviews, in which he has talked about his role in Leeds’ revival, offered up some unflattering opinions of various football personalities, circumnavigated attempts to pin names to the club’s owners and – in a particularly odd encounter with the Independent – made a journalist pay for a very expensive lunch in Monte Carlo, but only told him at the end of the meal.

There’s a certain type of journalist – and I think it’s a generational thing – who reacts to Bates in the manner of a 40-something reviewing a new single by a band they liked as a teenager. It’s not so much what Bates is doing at Leeds that attracts the interest, it’s more he’s still doing it at all after so many years.

The club themselves have been more like a kid who has moved to a new school and is trying to find his place in the playground pecking order. This is, after all, the team that lost at Histon and won at Manchester United in recent memory. Before today’s game against Swansea, they had lost to Derby and Leicester, drawn with Nottingham Forest and beaten Millwall and Watford. Their season remains in the ‘anyone’s guess’ category.

It was a strange game. Leeds have, this season, adopted a tactic of attacking teams from the off and trying to catch them on the back foot. And yet they had conceded the first goal in three of their first four Championship games. Thirteen minutes in, they were behind again.

And what a shocking goal it was to concede. Richard Naylor stumbled and made a hash of Gary Cotterill’s through ball, allowing Stephen Dobbie to run on and score. It seemed to stop Leeds in their tracks.

For most of the rest of the first half, Swansea’s 4-2-3-1 line-up comfortably picked off Leeds’ 4-3-3 formation. Mark Gower and Andrea Orlandi, in the holding roles for Swansea, frustrated the home midfield. Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair caused problems down the wings, while Cotterill was too often allowed to roam free to support Dobbie.

Sinclair should have made it 2-0 but seemed to lose his nerve in a one-on-one with keeper Shane Higgs, who later made two important saves from Dobbie. Bradley Johnson hit the bar for Leeds in first-half stoppage time, but you would not have bet on a home win at the interval.

There’s something of a 1970s feel about Elland Road, particularly if you are at the back of the John Charles Stand, with its wooden seats and whitewashed wall. There have been changes since then – most notably a new East Stand, opened in 1992 – but enough remained for the makers of That Damned Movie to shoot several of the Brian Clough scenes at the ground.

It’s an old-fashioned football ground, with old-fashioned acoustics. Maybe that worked to Leeds’ advantage in the second half. Manager Simon Grayson and his Swansea counterpart Brendan Rodgers suggested afterwards that the noise from the home support played a part in transforming the game. When you’ve conceded the first goal as often as Leeds have this season, you have to be good at comebacks.

The equaliser came from a free kick 11 minutes into the second half. Gradel delivered, Naylor headed goalwards, Dorus De Vries beat the ball out and Johnson smashed in the rebound – his first goal since last October. The volume rose. Eight minutes later, it was 2-1, thanks to another goal borne of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Gradel cut the ball back from the left for Lloyd Sam. De Vries saved. Neil Kilkenny’s follow-up was deflected goalwards by Jonny Howson. De Vries saved again. The ball ran loose, with the keeper on the ground. Luciano Becchio whacked it in from four yards. If De Vries had saved that one as well, someone else would probably have put the ball in.

The match got a bit tasty after that, with Becchio going in hard on De Vries, who reacted by throwing the ball at the striker. A free-for-all followed, but referee Grant Hegley took the sensible view by booking both players when he might have been tempted to show red.

Swansea still had chances, and substitute Joe Allen was unlucky not to get a penalty when he had his shirt tugged inside the area. As the minutes ticked away, a home fan walked past my seat in the press box. “I hope you’ve been watching the same game as I have,” he said, perhaps just as a way of making conversation.

Leeds were a little lucky. They held on for the win and climbed to fourth, but they won’t stay there unless they tighten up defensively.

“It’s a characteristic that we’ve tried to impose on the squad – never give up, have belief,” Grayson said afterwards. “If they want to put me through the mill every week and they win games, then I’m quite happy.”

Swansea manager Rodgers was left wondering how his team have managed to win all their home games and lose all their away ones in the league this season.

“Anyone who has seen us away so far will know that we just have a little spell in games,” he said. “We had it at Norwich with six or seven minutes to go and lost, and we had it today in the middle part of the second half.

“It’s the little details that we will get right. We’ll work on them in training, get that progression, keep the home form and then I think we can then push on.”

September’s sun starts to fade. But at this time of year, anything still seems possible.

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